What is History in International Relations?

Millennium: Journal of International Studies

Author/s (editor/s):

John M. Hobson, George Lawson

Publication year:


Publication type:

Journal article

Find this publication at:

John M. Hobson and George Lawson, ‘What is History in International Relations?’ Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 37(2) 2008: 415-35.

To some extent, history has always been a core feature of the international imagination. On both sides of the Atlantic, leading figures in the discipline such as E.H. Carr, Hans Morgenthau, Martin Wight, Hedley Bull and Stanley Hoffman have all employed history as a means of illuminating their research. Indeed, Wight made searching the desiderata of international history the sine qua non of international theory, the best that could be hoped for in a discipline without a core problematique of its own. Although often considered to have been banished by the scientific turn in International Relations (IR) during the Cold War, at least in the United States, history never really went away as a tool of IR theory. And in recent years, the (re)turn of history has been one of the most striking features of the various openings in IR theory ushered in by the end of the Cold War.

As such, this forum is extremely timely, posing a series of important questions about the relationship between history and International Relations, and questioning the status of IR’s recent historical (re)turn. The general issue is a pressing one because Fred Northedge’s original goal in setting up Millennium was to provide a (British) counterweight to the ‘ahistorical positivist project’ that had engulfed mainstream American IR. Thus by bringing history back in, albeit in a critical way, Northedge’s thinking reflected a now commonly held assumption: that there is a trans-Atlantic divide that separates a historically informed British IR against a history-less U.S. mainstream. And in turn, these perceptions form the basis of the current forum.

But in certain key respects, we want to argue that these perceptions – common as they are – are misrepresentations, reflecting a series of widely-held antinomies that are falsely assumed to underpin the discipline. The juxtaposition of history-less/ahistorical U.S. IR versus British historical IR is misleading because history is important to mainstream U.S. IR (as we explain in the first section). Moreover, we also find problematic the type of binary engendered by Robert Cox’s distinction between critical (historical) theory and history-less/ahistorical problem-solving theory. The problem with this formulation is that it occludes a deeper, more fundamental issue, one which is rarely overtly discussed: the question of whether there is a single mode of historical research in IR. In this article we unravel this claim by posing the question: ‘what is history in IR?’ In the process, the second section of the piece outlines four modes of history in IR, all of which can be situated along a continuum ranging from macro- to micro-analysis, all of which provide different visions of history, and all of which deploy history in different ways. This move means searching above and beyond the binaries posed by this forum, whether considered as positivism vs. post-positivism, or as an apparently unbridgeable trans-Atlantic divide. In fact, our contention is that the central issue when it comes to understanding the relationship between history and IR is not one of ‘British historical IR vs. American non-historical IR’, nor one of post-positivist ‘pure history’ vs. traditional ahistorical positivism. Rather, our portrayal of four ideal-typical modes of historical research presents quite different points of departure for considering the history-theory relationship, which in turn has potentially important ramifications for the way that we ‘do’ IR theory. And equally importantly, once we set-up this heuristic, we find that the principal camps in the so-called ‘history wars’ – namely traditional (positivist) historians and critical (poststructuralist-inspired) historiographers – turn out to occupy a space surprisingly close together.

Asking the question ‘what is history’, therefore, leads us to a deeper understanding of the relationship between history and IR. Although representatives of these various historical modes of explanation often engage in forms of one-upmanship over what constitutes ‘true’ or ‘proper’ historical analysis, our central claim is that all four approaches can be seen as legitimate modes of historical analysis. In short, we need to recognise that no-one ‘owns’ history. As such, our advocacy of one of these modes of analysis – historicist historical sociology – is made not on the basis that it delivers a truer form of historical analysis. Rather, we claim that the main benefit of historical sociology lies in its capacity to conduct research which is both rich historically and fertile theoretically. Justifying this claim, and laying out the core wagers – both theoretical and empirical – of historical sociology in IR, is the subject of the third section of the paper. In the conclusion we briefly outline the consequences of such a move – most notably a shift towards seeing historical sociology at the centre of IR as a discipline.

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